Category Archives: religion

Get Thee To A Nunnery

I’m not a particularly religious person, but there have been times when, sitting the cool, darkened, Frankincense-scented silence of a church, I have instinctively understood why a person might choose to opt for a life of contemplation within a convent, seminary, ashram, or the like. In these moments, I consider what it might be like to turn one’s back on the often-uphill climb of everyday life, with its bills, bosses, and buses, its exhausting search for a soulmate to partner up with, its grocery shopping and credit scores and performance reviews, its dog shit and mortgage lenders, and give it all up for a small room with a chair and a bed, a simple schedule of prayer and housekeeping, some peace and quiet from the endless buzz and noise of the secular world.
There is an invisible, inviolable wall between the world outside the doors, with all its worries and countless petty annoyances, and what feels like a serene simplicity inside, where one need only be concerned with connecting to the Divine. I close my eyes and dream, for a moment, of a life tending roses in a nunnery garden, chopping carrots for a dinner to feed dozens, hours spent slipping beads worn smooth through my fingers, mind still and all other concerns gone, set sail on the ship that was my life outside the walls.

I don’t believe this sentiment unique to the Catholic church. I would wager it’s likely palpable within any religious community that offers the opportunity for sequestering oneself from the pressures and pains of our mundane lives. I can particularly understand why women of eras past would have chosen the convent after a lifetime belonging to a man – father, husband, brother, or son – choosing instead to belong to a long-dead prophet who won’t come bleating for a beer or pork chops or a clean shirt. To be relieved of the chattering demands of family, the crushing poverty and cruelty of the external world, the worries of getting by in those viciously misogynistic times, could prove too alluring to resist.

Of course there is the bloody Jesus thing. The resurrection thing, which I’ve always found problematic. Those power-mad bishops. The corruption of the hierarchy (and I don’t just mean the Vatican; I think pretty much an organized religion – any organization, really – gets pretty grimy at the top) and it’s dirty secrets. The inequality of the sexes. The working one’s fingers to the bone for nothing, the ripe potential for exploitation. So, yeah, there’s that.

And I know I’ve already got too much skin in this game, am much too of this world, to turn my back on it. It makes me tired and often it makes me cry, but I’m in. So I wrap up my grandmother’s rosary, light a candle and place it as close to any status of the Virgin Mary as I can find, and I walk out of the quiet dark and back into the chaos, the noise, the everyday search and destroy missions of this life.

Olvera Street & The Olive Tree

I was in LA again this past weekend, for a family-and-friends end-of-summer party. Having learned the hard way, I booked a late afternoon flight so I’d have pretty much the whole day to get myself together to leave. My friend Daisy was headed to work that morning, so she dropped me off near Olvera Street for my usual orgy of conspicuous consumption, which was an unexpected treat I’d not planned on during such a short visit.

Before I took out my wallet and emptied it of all liquid assets (booty scored: tattoo-style charm bracelet, several pairs of earrings, the obligatory cross, a calavera car sticker, and gifts for several loved ones), however, I decided I’d stop in at Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles (otherwise known as La Placita Church), the oldest church in LA, right across the street from Olvera. It’s an active church and like many in LA, site of some amazing murals. On the north wall is a stunning one of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Juan Diego. The area of the plaza below it is fenced off and several racks are set up for devotional candles, as well as two kneelers for those who come to pray.

I was there at about eleven in the morning. Roughly a half-dozen worshippers – all Latin – were gathered beneath the mural, praying, kneeling or standing, reading from missals, holding rosaries. I felt too much like a spectator to go in myself at first, so I stood outside the fence and took it all in, especially one diminutive woman in particular, her coal-black braids trailing down her tiny back, her right hand holding a well-worn missal as she intoned her prayers quietly to La Virgen. Candles flickered in the hot noonday sun; not as atmospheric as it would have been at dark but just as moving. I watched people come and go and in a strange way envied their faith; its absoluteness and reliability – they didn’t need their religion to be a poem or a metaphor the way that I do. I wondered what it must be like to feel that way, to feel God under your feet, solid as earth.

I went inside the Church and joined the others taking part in Adoration for a while. It was cool inside, and quiet, despite a couple of dozen people in a small space. I love old, Spanish-style churches. There’s just nothing quite like them.

I went back out and made my way to the Guadalupe mural I’d visited earlier. There were fewer people there so I stood beneath the olive tree (hey! shade! Thanks, God!) to give prayers of sincere thanks for the many wonderful blessings I have in this life, and offer prayers of protection for a Marine friend who is heading back to the war in Iraq. My eyes were closed behind my sunglasses and I was super emo that day, so let’s just say that while I wasn’t openly sobbing on the street, I wasn’t exactly dry-eyed.

And then, a huge drop of water fell onto my forearm. I felt it and the first thing I thought of was pigeon, but when I opened my eyes, and then ran my finger through it, it was pretty obvious that it was water. I looked side to side – no one, nothing. Up – just the olive tree. I searched thoroughly for any sign of moisture, any logical reason to justify the splash on my arm. There was nothing. Dry as a bone. I got the chills, crossed myself, and made my way to the plaza, though I kept reflecting on it for the rest of the day.

I receive so many strange and lovely gifts, all the time. I don’t know what this was – my best friend called it ‘a small miracle.’ Maybe. Or maybe it was a coincidence and there’s a perfectly logical explanation. I’ll never know. But I’ll take what I can get, and I’ll err on the side of miracles.

Original Sin

I’m a very bad Catholic. I’m very lackadaisical about going to Mass and figure The Great Muhawumba must understand that lounging around drinking two cups of very strong coffee while devouring the entire Sunday paper is a form of religious ritual. I am pro-choice and a major fag-hag. I distrust hierarchies and if the Church isn’t the Grandaddy of those, I don’t know what is.

But still. I like being a Catholic. I appreciate that the Church is adamantly anti-death penalty and constantly agitates on behalf of the poor, voiceless, imprisoned, and weak (unless they’re gay. Kidding.) I’m a classic ‘cafeteria Catholic’ and am happy to belly up to the bar and order all the frankincense, holy water, and Hail Marys (though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get the Rosary down) I can get.

There are a few days in the ecclesiastical calendar that I try not to miss, and yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was one of them. It’s the first day of Lent and a day of repentance and atonement (not unlike the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), when one is encouraged to leave one’s past and sins ‘in the ashes’ and prepare one’s heart for Easter. One is reminded that ‘from dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,’ reminding us (in a very Buddhist-like way) that our existence is transient, our troubles similarly ephemeral.

So I was, you know, a little pensive. I expected some dry, uptight priest to emerge for the Mass, but instead got this great, deep-voiced brother whom, even on this solemn day, exuded joy. As he made the cross of ashes on my forehead he said, ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’ When I sat back down to meditate upon that, I arrived at this: the greatest sin is that which you commit against yourself; the lies you tell yourself, the addictions you allow to enslave you, the way you sometimes have to harden your heart just to get through the day.

Later that day I stumbled across the story of Pogo, a little three-legged pit bull puppy that had been dumped at the pound, had a vet donate surgery to remove his bum leg, was flourishing in a foster home and was expected to make a great recovery and live and long and fulfilling life. Last July, on a night when I was packing up and preparing to leave the City after 18 years, Pogo was taken for a walk with his foster guardian on Ocean Beach, a block from my house. He ran behind a sand dune and was not seen again until ten days later, when his stabbed corpse was found miles away in the Bayview District.

Reading that, I felt like I had been punched in the face. What does it take, I wonder, what darkness of the human heart has to exist to take a wiggly, three-legged puppy who obviously already had the odds stacked again him and stick a knife into his flesh, again and again and again, while he yelped and struggled and screamed? What kind of person does it take to do that? It’s the same thing I had when I first heard about the Michael Vick case. There are few things in this world that make me feel truly violent, but sick people who hurt weak animals are one of them.

In my tenderhearted moments, in those hours when my body feels like one raw, exposed nerve, I sometimes wonder how one can stand to go on living in a world where puppies are stabbed, where children are abandoned and hit and worse, where fathers grind down their sons and women are commodified and pimped, where wounded deer lie by the side of the freeway dying and none of the thousands of motorists driving by at 75 MPH can be bothered to pick up their cell phone so someone can come put it out of its pain.

If there is such a thing as Original Sin, it is this: we are born with a selfishness beyond that inherent in our simple animal biology; a selfishness and a cruelty that surpasses that of any other species, one so ugly and dark and irredeemable and impossible to beat, breed, or perhaps even love out of us, that at times I believe we really are lost, that we really are ‘The Virus,’ that the sooner we die out – and that means our beauty as well as our bottomless ugliness – the better.